How can a news site pick an obscure freelance journalist and make her a subject of global debate, driving 1.5 million users to one story in little more than 24 hours while generating more than 5,000 comments, 100,000 Facebook likes, 7,000 tweets and a slew of articles across the web?
The Mail itself reports that the article had 1.5 million "hits" yesterday but Mail Online MD James Bromley tells me that the entire site received nearly six million unique visits yesterday (which fits with the ABC-audited average daily user figure for March of 5.7 million). Most traffic is from the UK, he says, but the US follows close behind.
Mail Online's dominance in the online free-to-view news sector at home and internationally has been well documented. Almost a year ago to the day I wrote that "you may not like it but Mail Online is a digital innovator" and that is still true today.
But we're moving into a new era here: the Mail is becoming the pre-eminent virally driven news and entertainment site in the world.
To put these figures in perspective, the UK's best-selling paper The Sun attracts 1.5 million online unique browsers a day, just a quarter of the Mail's audience:
I want to ask two questions: why is it popular and is it making any money?
As novelist-turned Tory MP Louise Mensch puts it (in this epic New Yorker article on the MO phenomenon): "We're clicking on 'Oh my God, one of the WAGs couldn't put her hair up because she’d freshly painted her nails' and then you’re thinking, Why am I reading this? I'm an adult."
Critics are quick to point out that any site with pictures of scantily clad and vicariously famous women will do well and that MO is no stranger to aggressive SEO techniques (there is A-B and C testing of article headlines to see which one is more popular, for example). But is there more to it?
It seems obvious to me that the Mail in print and online publishes things it knows are inflammatory, titillating, controversial, knowingly offensive, even downright rude. What surprises me is how surprised people are by this and how easily they are sucked in.
This is from a presentation by Martin Clarke, the site's editor, in 2010 which coyly refers to the site's "unique tone of voice":
What should be of more interest to content marketers, editors and journalists is how an article that was so easy to produce, such a small part of the business, managed to create such a buzz. This is a site that markets itself - the users themselves are its best marketing tool.
Despite what the liberal-leaning media twittersphere may think as it agonises over whether it's ethical to link to the evil Mail or whether to install Kittenblock, this has very little to do with Twitter. A study from Searchmetrics in November 2011 (via Journalism.co.uk) found that over six months...
-- 50.7 percent of all referral links were from Stumbleupon
-- 45.8 percent from Facebook and
-- A measly 3.2 percent from Twitter.
More fundamentally, comments are such a part of the MO reading experience it's hard to know when the publisher's content starts and the audience ends.
Samantha Brick story on MailOnline now has 3,138 comments, more than some news sites get in a month. That's 224 per hour.— Patrick Smith (@psmith) April 3, 2012
At its peak the Brick article was attracting almost four comments per minute - meaning that every time users return to the page there is something different to read and by outraged by.
The same goes for the "sidebar of shame", the never-ending selection of celeb stories that keeps users coming back for more, or as editorial director Clarke calls it, the "Right Rail of Genius".
(A subset of traffic to the Mail comes from its rivals - it's now a bona fide rule of a MO story going viral that both posh and popular papers and broadcasters will cover it in an attempt to grab some of the traffic).
Does this make MO any money?
Can the Mail translate this audience into revenue? MO's rate card - as Robert Andrews uncovered - asks for CPM rates of between £20 and £40 - so assuming that the site manages to sell direct inventory to agencies at, say, 25 percent of its rate card for a £25 CPM slot - with some back-of-napkin calculations then they might expect to make £37,500 from six million users a day. Some interesting debate on this today from @Lakey and several others:
(Update: As Paul Lomax and others have mentioned on Twitter, the real CPM price will be even lower still - perhaps something like £1 or less, with much of the traffic being given over to remant, so my prediction is a little optimistic.)
MO contributed £16 million in revenue in 2011 - not nearly enough to cover its heavy expansion costs in the UK and US - but there isn't a feeling of panic. The Daily Mail makes enough in print (although four percent down in 2011) to allow its online sister to grow slowly, as the annual report shows:
So it's ads all the way. But DMGT watchers may have noticed the 2011 annual report's key line on the site's monetisation: "...investment continues in new and emerging business models, particularly MailOnline which is key to future growth, and A&N Media Enterprises, which sells products and services directly to customers."
If nothing else, it's seems that there's a business model in outraging people.